suing and blockading for compatibility

One thing that came up periodically when people on the HTML working group were discussing version selectors was the notion that there is legal liability associated with breaking compatibility. Chris Wilson is the person who most frequently brings up this point (unsurprising, given his affiliation and experiences with IE), though he may well not be the only one. I’ll excerpt one example here:

We (Microsoft) have to be in control of our own destiny there. Unless you’re suggesting that the WG would shoulder the financial burden when we (Microsoft) are sued because we broke compatibility and caused some company’s multi-million-dollar intranet app to break.

And later, though not referring to liability but rather a government “lockout”:

A single government who locks us out of their market because we broke their intranet app (even if they were ua-switching and giving us bad content, and it was “clearly their fault”)? Probably a very big deal.

I have a couple of questions, then, for the combined legal minds of the lazy web:

  • What would be the legal basis for a suit by a customer, given the provisions of typical EULAs which explicitly disclaim pretty much all warranty they can? Let’s assume that the compatibility break is caused by an upgrade to a new version of software (Firefox 2 to Firefox 3, for example) that’s under the control of the customer. You can choose your jurisdiction, and assume the worst case for the vendor having end-of-lifed the previous version, etc.
  • Can anyone find an example of such a suit having been brought?
  • Not a legal question, but very much on my mind: given the impact that IE7 had on Korea, why would they have gone ahead and done the release anyway, if it was such a big deal for them to be locked out of a national market?

I invite your informed, or perhaps just creative, speculation on the topic! Personal attacks on Chris Wilson, or rehashed “Microsoft is evil so they got the illuminati to block Korea’s secret sanctions in the UN” conspiracy theories are not welcome, and might well be moderated out or disemvoweled.

12 comments to “suing and blockading for compatibility”

  1. entered 6 February 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    Funny how Microsoft is not concerned at all with new operating system versions breaking applications, but new browser versions must not break things! I wonder if Microsoft’s statement is an admission of culpability in other products where new releases broke existing functionality!

  2. entered 6 February 2008 @ 5:11 pm

    This sounds like a variation of the FUD in the infamous “Halloween Documents”, outlining Microsoft’s approach for attacking the “organizational credibility” of open source… “Who do you sue if the next version of Linux breaks some commitment?” [See

    Those documents are nearly 10 years old now, so I guess that means Microsoft is out of new ideas in the FUD department too.

  3. Breco Pol
    entered 7 February 2008 @ 1:18 am

    Maybe some part of Microsoft did consulting for Intranet setups and applications and is thus bound by contracts? But still then, this sounds awful like bullshitting in order to irritate WG people through FUD.

  4. entered 7 February 2008 @ 3:53 am

    I can’t speak to your first two questions but on the third Chris Wilson certainly has a lot to answer with respect to the release of IE7 in South Korea. The S. Korean Government, no less, requested to Microsoft Korea to delay the release of IE7 in Korea without success. Essentially all of South Korea is on Microsoft software, and yet Microsoft would not listen to the request of Korea- it was more important to have a global release of IE7 than to deal with the issues around ActiveX in Korea.

    In January of 2007, 3 South Korean government bodies, the Ministry of Information and Communication, the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, and the Financial Supervisory Service warned Korean Internet users to delay purchasing or upgrading to Microsoft Vista due to Vista and IE7′s new handling of Active-X controls. – Microsoft Vista to Cause Confusion for Korean Net Users

    If Microsoft didn’t listen to the Korean government, it’s humorous to hear Chris Wilson talk about government intranets or commercial intranets, because IE7 in Korea broke all kinds of public websites, not just intranets.

  5. pd
    entered 7 February 2008 @ 4:24 am

    If suing Microsoft for breaking websites was realistic, Microsoft would now be a non-entity assigned to history after being sued out of existence.

    Browsers are important but they are not embedded in mission critical systems, or at least if they are, those who have put the browser in that situation are more responsible than MS.

    The reality is that it doesn’t take that much effort to recode web software.

    Any company with any sense of reality would realise the cost of lawyers would be heaps more than the cost of fixing their software. For those ambulance chasers out there expecting a huge payout to cover any costs, all MS has to do is volunteer to fix whatever software is busted.

    I’m not a lawyer but I have to wonder what sort of legal advice MS is getting. Surely they realise that they were given nothing more than a slap on the wrist worldwide for anti-trust. MS is practically untouchable legally.

  6. FP
    entered 7 February 2008 @ 5:24 am

    Matt: “Funny how Microsoft is not concerned at all with new operating system versions breaking applications”

    I suggest you go read the blogs of some of the MS employees who work on backwards compatibility to see the lengths they go to.

  7. Kris
    entered 7 February 2008 @ 6:33 am

    I would have thought that the first port of call for someone whose multi-million dollar intranet site is broken would be the people who wrote it.

  8. entered 7 February 2008 @ 6:37 am

    Sorry, one more quote from Microsoft Korea and the Korean government around the Vista launch. If the Korean government’s request was not enough to delay the Vista launch, I’m wondering if Microsoft would have ignored a similar request from the US government.

    With just a week to go before Vista comes out, much remains to be done but Microsoft has declined to postpone the release. “We’ve been testing Vista with banks and other service providers since September, but we encountered more delays than we expected,” a Microsoft official said. “We plan to release the product as scheduled.”

    There’s not much the government can do, either. “We can’t tell a private enterprise to postpone the release of a new product,” an official from the Ministry of Information and Communication said. The best thing, the official said, is for Internet users to check with their service providers to see if there will be any problems before they use Vista. In other words, don’t install Vista before you know what you’re getting into.

    Microsoft Vista to Cause Confusion for Korean Net Users

  9. Not representing my employer
    entered 7 February 2008 @ 11:45 am


    Are you familiar with the “deep pockets” theory of lawsuits?

  10. crf
    entered 7 February 2008 @ 1:29 pm

    It is obvious that ie is a web-browser, which is supposed to implement html and css and javascript, which are (evolving) web standards. Microsoft knows that. Its customers know that, and have always known that. It’s customers cannot possibly believe they can rely on microsoft not improving ie to better support web standards. It’s as obvious as the fact that web pages on companies’ servers have the html suffix. It’s as obvious as the fact that you’re rarely going to find 8 year old web pages of any importance still on the net.

    Microsoft is just playing games. If they were honest, they’d try very hard to jointly with their customers make public the full discussion and reasoning that led them to their position that html rendering for the entire web and for every browser (not just in corporate intranets) needs to be frozen absent a special tag.

    That is how standards ought to be done.

  11. entered 25 February 2008 @ 9:44 am

    Shaver, my thoughts are here.

  12. entered 25 February 2008 @ 8:01 pm

    As others have said, if backwards compatibility was a claimable issue, Microsoft would be out of business by now.

    The only way that Microsoft (or any other organization) would be liable for this would be if they contractually agreed to such a constraint. And, having been working with Microsoft’s agreements for over a decade, I can tell you without a doubt that they don’t have this in their template (and that they don’t come too far “off” their template, even for REALLY big deals).

    The net-net on this is that unless there’s a larger agreement in place (for example, if Microsoft has an agreement with the W3C to keep IE compliant with the standards), Microsoft has ZERO liability (of any sort).